Note: Please allow me to disclose that I received a complimentary copy of the title in question. Also, strong language appears (in quotation) in the final paragraph of this review.
It's probably not news to anyone that Americans have a love affair with Europe. I remember the envy I felt with a friend travelled to Belgum for work and spent his evenings sipping abbey ale and writing in a room with a view of centuries-old streets. When the life your nation scarcely stretches back two-hundred years, you can't help but feel a little awed and intimidated at the breadth of history in the old country. That simultaneous sense of intrigue and inferiority informs Sarah Hina's Plum Blossoms in Paris, a debut novel centered on an American tradition -- taking to the road to outrun your problems.
Daisy Lockhart had believed her longtime boyfriend Andy was the one, the guy with whom she'd settle down and raise a family. So his matter-of-fact email saying that no, it's really not you, it's me hit her like the proverbial slap across the face. Heartbroken, Daisy flies to Paris on a whim, hoping an indefinite stay in Europe's most romantic burg would take her mind off her old love. But he hadn't counted on meeting Mathieu. The handsome tour guide and sometime writer is fiery where Andy was mellow, passionate rather than dulled by routine. Swept away by sudden romance, Daisy faces a choice: Should she return to the land of her birth or learn to call The City of Light home?
Although I have a rather rocky relationship with chick lit, I was hoping to enjoy Paris, not least because of Hina's prose. Darn it, but she can write, melding vivid descriptions with striking metaphors that might make John Donne wince with envy. If only she'd chosen a character other than Daisy to cluster all that fine prose around. Perhaps inveterate insecurity is simply part of the genre, but I quickly tired of the constant cataloguing of Daisy's personal flaws. She dislikes her breast size, her complexion, her posture, her education, her childbearing capabilities (an irony given the amount of unprotected sex in which she indulges) and -- most of all -- her Americanness.
That dislike of national origins opens another area of concern for the novel, namely politics. There's nothing wrong with airing political views, but wisdom suggests that doing so in narrative form requires a light touch. Paris lacks it. In fact, Daisy's ruminations make talk radio appear nuanced by comparison. It seems as though on every other page she's lambasting President Bush as "a raging fuckup" or calling Karl Rove his "thumb-up-your-ass-ist governess." A chance encounter at an Ethiopian restaurant with someone who looks like the 45th Vice President gets Daisy misty about the 2000 elections. "Where have you gone, Al Gore?" she muses. "A nation returns its lonely eyes to you. We'll accept the stiffness of your spine, as long as it's connected to a conscience." You get the idea. It isn't exactly nuanced. That's a shame, because Hina is obviously talented. Here's to hoping her next novel blooms into something truly brilliant.
(Picture: CC 2009 by tibchris)